Motorcyclists shield mourners from protesters
by JASON STEIN (firstname.lastname@example.org) of the Wisconsin State Journal
When Greg “Mac” MacDonald of Manchester heard about protests at the funerals of fallen Wisconsin soldiers, he got a sick feeling in his gut and a plan in his head.
A fringe church group, incensed over what it says are America’s moral failings, was protesting at the burials of soldiers – veterans who had fought for their country just as MacDonald’s grandfathers and uncles had.
“It made my stomach turn, really,” said MacDonald, 41, who is not a veteran himself. “It was just unfathomable how you could be so cruel to the families.”
So the Harley-riding activist organized dozens of volunteers to start the Wisconsin chapter of the Patriot Guard Riders, a national group of motorcycle- riding veterans who’ve made it their mission to shield grieving families from protesters.
The national group organizes dozens of bikers, many of them veterans of Vietnam, the first Gulf War and other conflicts, to stand between protesters and the mourners, MacDonald said. Group members wave flags and occasionally rev their engines if mourners want them to drown out the shouts of the protesters.
Since starting up toward the end of November, MacDonald said he figures his Wisconsin group has assembled close to 100 members. There’s been no Wisconsin soldier killed since early December, so there have been no requests for the Patriot Guard here, MacDonald said. But he’s already organized a guard presence at a service for a soldier in a suburb of Chicago. The group might attend its first service in Wisconsin in the next month, at a memorial for an out-of-state soldier whose mother is in Wisconsin, he said.
MacDonald said the group got its start nationally in Oklahoma and Kansas, near the home base of Fred Phelps, the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.
Phelps’ group, which says casualties in Iraq are the result of America’s tolerance for gays, shows up at funerals with signs such as “Thank God for IEDs,” referring to the homemade bombs that have killed many soldiers serving there. The group has protested at at least three services for Wisconsin soldiers in recent months.
Lawmakers around the country have been considering ways to restrict the protests. Wisconsin’s Legislature has moved more quickly than most, passing a bill this month that awaits action by Gov. Jim Doyle.
Doyle has said he will sign the bill, which makes it a crime to protest, within an hour before or after a scheduled funeral service, within 500 feet of the entrance to the ceremony site. Other restrictions in cities and states such as Kansas have been allowed to stand in some form but have also faced setbacks in court over whether they’re constitutional.
“What’s been more effective is the Patriot Guard,” said Whitney Watson, a spokesman for Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline.
“If (Phelps’) protesters are going to exercise their First Amendment rights by doing what they do, I think it’s great that the Patriot Guard is there to exercise their First Amendment rights to counter that.”
That view isn’t universal among law enforcement. Dodge County Sheriff Todd Nehls was involved in a confrontation with Phelps’ group during an October protest near a rural Mayville church where a funeral was being held. That incident happened before a Patriot Guard Riders group had been organized in Wisconsin.
Though he’s a “biker and a veteran” himself, Nehls thinks the proposed law is a better solution to the protesters, saying he fears the well-meaning presence of Patriot Guard members might make a tense situation worse.
“If the bikers group volunteered their services to come and block the message and be between the protesters and the funeral goers, I would not be receptive to that because I think the more attitudes and the more opinions you put together in a can, it’s just going to be a no-win situation for everybody,” he said.
But while most guard members support Wisconsin’s proposed restriction, including MacDonald and Jan Markheim, 48, of Appleton, they also want to go a step further to protect grieving families.
The Patriot Guard will show up at any soldier’s funeral even if Phelps isn’t present, but only if a family member asks the riders to come, MacDonald said.
“I’d rather have the family of a downed serviceman remember the supporters with flags, rather than remember (Phelps) and his organization,” he said.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of the Westboro church pastor, said the guard has prevented her congregation from exercising its right to protest freely and have been involved in two physical confrontations with her congregation.
“If you’re not doing what we’re doing . . . you’re an unthankful, ungrateful fool,” Phelps-Roper said.
Watson and MacDonald both said they weren’t aware of any physical confrontations between Phelps and other guard chapters. “We don’t confront them in any way,” MacDonald said.
The Patriot Guard riders aren’t the first stab at activism for MacDonald, who’s also been involved in successful campaigns to prevent the state from enacting a mandatory helmet law for motorcyclists.
Copyright Â© 2005 Wisconsin State Journal